On August 29, 2015, I attended a mayoral debate between two candidates aiming for office at a Poverty Summit, where the issue of homelessness was discussed.
What follows is an autobiographical account and an explication of some of the points that were brought up.
As I always learn with events like this, even though such events don’t involve the homeless themselves as much as I would prefer, I still learn a lot about what is happening in terms of policy decisions to help the homeless. They are valuable experiences for queuing me in on what decisions are made on behalf of the homeless, and hence why I write about them. At the very least, it provides me a conceptual and ethical framework to construct and to utilize, especially as regards the homeless and in terms of thinking about the problem.
The debate was far too short for many points to be brought up and discussed, but what was indeed discussed was what the candidates wanted to do about homelessness. The main points were the following: an attention to subpopulations (homeless folks of all type now congregate in downtown Salt Lake, ranging from addicts to families to the mentally ill to single men, which makes for a chaotic environment) and the need to address their needs, as well as attention to the need for affordable housing. Also, whether or not the services for the homeless should be moved out of Salt Lake, and consequently, moving the homeless themselves out of Salt Lake, was discussed.
Many other points were brought up as well, but those were easily three of the main points.
I was disappointed that one of the questions that wasn’t discussed was why people are homeless in the first place, but I’m hoping this was because there wasn’t enough time to discuss it, as the debate was less than an hour. I do want to note that I think this is an important question to ask, however, and it seems that at least one of the reasons is because there isn’t enough affordable housing.
In terms of what the candidates wanted to do to create affordable housing: This was a tricky one, because it sounded as though developers have their own agenda with building houses, and that excludes affordable and/or low-income housing, which makes things difficult on a political and social level. Based off my sociological research on homelessness, this is actually quite in line with what tends to happen: The spirit of free-range business and real estate gets in the way of the survival needs of citizens of a city, and the desires of developers sharply contrast with the needs of low-income people and the policies that a politician can make. It was brought up at the debate that one of the problems with the area downtown is that thirty years ago, there were only homeless men, and there were no businesses: But literally over the past thirty years, that has changed significantly, and it sounds to me, without trying to adopt a socialist bent, that businesses have taken charge over the land and own the area, which makes it difficult for homeless folk to integrate in that area and coordinate with the rest of the population downtown.
What was proposed to create low-income housing? The gist of it is pretty self-explanatory: Simply create more low-income housing, which was indeed proposed. This looks good on paper, but I know that this will be much harder to accomplish in practice. There are always many issues that get in the way of such an ambition, such as the interests of developers, the limitations of policy decisions, the changing/contingent landscape of a society and community, and the lack of funding (in fact, if I understood correctly, funding for the homeless has been actually slashed).
I am, however, happy that this issue was at least raised.
Another issue was indeed that of the subpopulations. It was proposed that we should keep Fourth Street Clinic downtown because it is a good service, which is good to hear. But somehow or other, the clustering of the homeless folk needs to be addressed. I don’t recall any solutions, except for an excellent solution that would involve assessing the needs of homeless folk upfront. If the homeless person is an addict, for instance, one could use housing as an incentive to help that person get and stay clean. If the homeless person is a family, such needs could be addressed accordingly. If the homeless person chooses the life of homelessness, we would understand that person to be a chronically homeless person, and would continue to work with them as time and resources allow.
This is actually a very intelligent approach, in my opinion, even if it seems a little apparent (and transparent). We need to know what the needs of the homeless are upfront, why they are homeless, how we can better assist them, in order to present to the homeless folks their options and to be aware of what we can do to help them.
I understand that the debate was cut short because of time, but I would have liked to see more representation of two specific subpopulations: Homeless teenagers and the mentally ill. Homeless families were represented (though not enough in a fifty minute debate), and addicts were as well, but in my experience with helping the homeless, I rarely hear about the needs of the mentally ill and the needs of homeless street youth. There are probably other subpopulations as well that deserve more discussion.
Overall, though, it’s important to keep in mind that subpopulations will have different needs. This is a fact that might seem obvious but isn’t always immediately apparent. We tend to lump the homeless together in a broad category called “The Homeless,” which underrepresents the complex dynamics of the homeless themselves.
A final important issue brought up was whether or not we should move the homeless out of Salt Lake. Both candidates strongly disagreed with this, which I applauded internally, because doing such a thing would only remove the problem out of Salt Lake and wouldn’t solve the underlying problem, which is important because it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a severed carotid artery, to move the homeless out of Salt Lake.
On a final note: though I strongly disagree, I can understand why some people want to move the homeless out of the downtown area. Downtown Salt Lake is a major business conglomerate, and having many homeless people around, to many citizens at least, can be disconcerting. This is unfortunate, and in my opinion, must be addressed; I would like to see more education about homelessness for the public, though that is another matter.
There has also been a fear of drugs. However, it was brought up at this debate that there is a difference between a drug dealer, which is part of a cartel, and a drug addict. It was recommended (and thus, consistent with the notion that rehabilitation creates a higher likelihood of helping an addict recover over simply throwing them in jail) that we distinguish between addicts, who need treatment and should not be immediately put in jail, and the dealers, who need to be dealt with by the law accordingly. I found this to be important, and a very crucial distinction. It was also mentioned that putting people in jail is more costly than rehabilitation, which means the dollars should indeed go to rehabilitation, it would seem.
I would add, however, a small anecdote about stressing rehabilitation. Again, this looks good on paper, but I’m not sure that it will be easy to implement in practice. I once tried to help an addict. I literally went all over town, from organization to organization to organization, literally getting run around by the system, to try and find a rehabilitation center for this person I was helping. Long story short, I didn’t find one (as the one I did finally found had a long waiting list), and this, along with other frustrations, led this homeless person to lashing out at me and stealing my television, leading to further conflict and lack of progress down the road. So again, it looks good on paper, but we need to actually implement funding for rehabilitation centers, in order to encourage people to get the help they need immediately. Again, this is what I liked about the idea to immediately assess the needs of the homeless, to see how we can essentially help.
In short, I found the debate interesting and enlightening, but we still have a long way to go. It’s hard to represent all of the subpopulations in the group, many plans look good on paper and seem to accord with a great system of ethics but are much harder to employ due to political and social pressures and restraints on resources, it’s always tempting to ignore the homeless population and their needs in favor of supporting the needs of businesses and privileged citizens, etc. My hope is that, whoever becomes the mayor, they can synthesize some of the best ideas available to help the homeless, and can keep in mind that the homeless population is a complex population that deserves a chance (and patience where necessary) and that they should not be criminalized for their social status. It seemed that both candidates felt the same way, but to drive this point home: It all sounds good on paper, but will this system of ethics actually, in the end, be employed, or will politics and financial limitations be the ultimate deciding factor on how we treat our homeless friends?
On that front, it’s hard to say, especially when it was brought up that there were other issues that weren’t even addressed: food needs and education, for instance, which are both very critical. Indeed, a person cannot function if they are starving, and lack of good education tends to lead to poverty down the road. And besides the time limit on the debate, why such issues like this weren’t brought up is beyond me.